Penn State and Wisconsin meet in the Big Ten Championship game with a possible spot in the College Football Playoff at stake.
Both teams played the Gophers this season and trailed by 10 points at halftime before rallying to win. Having watched both teams in person, here are my thoughts on the matchup.
On Penn State: The Nittany Lions looked doomed at halftime against the Gophers. They trailed 13-3 and their fans at Beaver Stadium seemed disinterested and ready to go home.
One play in the third quarter completely changed the game and, it turns out, their season. Facing third-and-10 from their own 20, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley scrambled up in the pocket to avoid a sack, fired off one foot and connected with receiver Irvin Charles at the 50.
Safety Adekunle Ayinde went for the strip but missed the tackle, allowing Charles to complete an 80-yard touchdown.
That play gave the Nittany Lions and their fans new life, opening the door for them to win in overtime after marching for a game-tying field goal in the final minute.
Penn State has not lost since. The Nittany Lions would not have won that day without Charles’ touchdown. Who knows how the rest of their season would have unfolded because a loss would have dropped them to 0-2 in the conference after getting steamrolled by Michigan the previous week.
The Nittany Lions clearly are a better team now than originally thought, buoyed by that comeback followed by an upset of Ohio State two weeks later.
Their confidence grew with each win. McSorley and Saquon Barkley are two of the Big Ten’s most dynamic offensive players, and the Nittany Lions also have the 20th-ranked defense nationally.
Seems absurd now, but Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour gave coach James Franklin a public vote of confidence through a local newspaper a few days before the Gophers game because Franklin’s job security once again had become the subject of fan and social media chatter after a 2-2 start.
On Wisconsin: This was supposed to be a down season, right? The schedule was a beast, the loss of defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU would sting and blah, blah, blah.
I predicted a 7-5 record and meant that as a compliment.
Paul Chryst deserves National Coach of the Year consideration after leading the Badgers through their landmine schedule to a 10-2 record. Their two losses came against Michigan (by seven points) and Ohio State (in overtime).
The Badgers are a balanced, complete team, but their defense is one of the five best in college football. They don’t seem to have a weak area in their defense, and the transition from Aranda to Justin Wilcox as coordinator had zero impact on production. The Badgers allowed 13.7 points per game last season and again this season.
Close observers of the program also credit the hiring of former All-America safety Jim Leonhard as secondary coach. Several defensive backs made significant improvement from last season under Leonhard’s guidance, and the Badgers lead the nation in interceptions with 21.
Four of those interceptions came in the second half against the Gophers after the Badgers trailed 17-7 at halftime. Those turnovers enabled Wisconsin to outscore the Gophers 24-0 in the second half.
Game prediction: The winner is not guaranteed a spot in the College Football Playoff because Ohio State already looks like a lock to make the four-team field along with No. 1 Alabama.
If either Clemson or Washington stumbles in its conference championship, that would open the door for the Big Ten winner.
My pick is the Badgers because of their defense. Penn State has playmakers on offense with Barkley and McSorley, but the Badgers defense is a cut above.
Wisconsin 24, Penn State 14